Student Elections: Evolving Wit and Wisdom

We asked alumni who stood for or gained an elected office in the Students' Union or KPA  for their abiding memories - and for advice to their successors...

The 1950s

I recall that in 1953 or 1954 my hut was known as the White House as it included Tom Parry (President), David Morris (Secretary) and me ( Treasurer). George Witherspoon Treasurer 1952-1953

When I arrived in 1952 the student population went up to 600. I can remember elections for President, Vice President, Treasurer and Chairman of the Social Committee (which was the one I was after) I got it in 1953 and served for two years. I do not recall any great excitement about the elections and I think there was more a problem in getting people to stand for office rather than intense competition. As for campaigning - I don't think there was any. Anybody interested knew the people who were standing and that was it! Keith Clement (1956)

When I stood for election as SU President, in 1956, we did not campaign, we did not present a programme, we made no promises, we simply submitted a nomination form. As there were only 600 undergraduates, it was assumed that people knew the candidates and it was left to the ballot box. I lost to the late Ian Dunbar (President 1956-1957). I was more successful in a subsequent election to the chairmanship of Horwood Hall, then the men's hall (actually the huts). John Sutton (1958)

The 1960s

Delighted to hear that Keele Students Union has a woman president, unthinkable in my day. In my first year at Keele, rather than go to the Royal Ball I went to the republican party that was held on the same night. But when I stood for election to become president, I decided, after some heart searching, not to stress my opposition to the university's decision to have a royal as its Chancellor. So when I was elected, I didn't feel I couldn't then make a republican gesture and meekly, as was traditional, danced with Princess Margaret at the Royal Ball in (I think)1961. Later that same night I told her husband, later Lord Snowdon, about the republican party on another part of the campus and he asked if he could go there; I explained that this might not be a wise move as he could be thrown out. I am still a republican; pleasant enough though Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother were on their visits to Keele during my presidency, I don't believe in according respect to someone solely because of their parentage or marriage. Colin Thomas President 1960-1961

My experience was bizarre and possibly unique I set it all out in my memoirs! Michael Mansfield Secretary 1962-1963

Student elections at Keele were always keenly fought, but not everyone was enamoured of them. I was involved in a count in the old Nissen Hut Union building about 1962. Some elector had folded the ballot paper into the shape of a little boat before placing it is the ballot box. One of my fellow counters explained, "It's what they're all looking for - the floating vote!" John Samuel Treasurer 1962-1963

My friend John Samuel resigned as Treasurer of the Union in 1963, spring term, and I surprised myself by getting elected to replace him up to the end of summer term. My campaign group (a bit of an exaggeration!) put together some blurb for the notice-board in the relatively new Union building.
We were very proud to choose the word "equanimity" in relation to my character. Not sure if that was the reason for my success, more likely it was that people sought a "neutral" candidate between the political wings which always had their own nominees. Eddie Lawler (1965)

Creating the first full-time sabbatical post

I was elected President of the Union in March 1965, by a margin of 323 to 300.  Since the total undergraduate population was only a little under a thousand it was a pretty good turnout, and very high by comparison with other, larger, unions, and followed a brief but vigorously fought campaign.  In 1965 I was the very dark horse candidate. One evening my former room-mate and I tossed a coin to decide which of us would run for President. Until nominations went in two weeks before the poll I was known only to the Drama Group and the occupants of Lindsay A block. There is much to be said for being unknown: the more you are already exposed the more you will accumulate enemies (I accumulated many thereafter). I won by a whisker (323 to 300) against the favoured candidate of the famous Keele Left. Reporting a close campaign, Cygnet (the more interesting left-leaning campus paper at the time) noted that “the only steady vote seemed to be that of the P1 (i.e. second year) women, firmly behind Bill Proctor”; and in the following year the same paper noted that in 1966 “there was none of that sex-appeal that won Proctor the final edge in Keele’s most glamorous election”. So – forget politics, and court the ladies.

I ran for the presidency in the Lent term of the second of my four undergraduate years (known as P 1).  It was usual for the President and most of the rest of the Union Committee to come from this cohort.  They devoted most of their P 2 year to Union activities – while still trying to keep pace with their two principal subjects and at least one subsidiary subject in their spare time - and then retired gracefully to serve as thorns in the side of their successors while catching up for Finals at the end of P 3.  

For a Union of only a thousand or so the idea that any of the elected officers needed to be fulltime might seem far-fetched, and certainly seemed so to most of Senate at the time.  But other much larger civic university unions had already begun to go down this road, and at Keele, the trail-blazer of what were then the new universities, there was a strong feeling that we should get in on this particular act before we were up-staged by others – and in particular by our well-heeled friends in Sussex, already our favourite bêtes noires.

In the summer term after my election, my predecessor Roy Moore was already deep in negotiations with the Senate. The negotiations were making slow progress.  The University authorities pointed out, not unreasonably, that the Union was already supported by a small but well-qualified band of permanent employees, including an absolutely brilliant Secretary/Accountant, Brian Whalen, whose portrait or bust ought to grace the ground floor foyer of the great Union building.

What the authorities initially overlooked was the fact that the Keele Union was not merely a merry grouping of politically-enthused undergraduates supported by skilled and avuncular professionals to keep them in order.  The Union was almost completely autonomous, its autonomy protected by the University’s own statutes, with its own legal personality.  With the exception of the magnificent bookshop (run by Students Bookshops Ltd in the Library basement) the Union was the only real trading organisation on the campus, its commercial operations were the direct and sole responsibility of the Union Committee, and it was the Union who employed all the staff.  Apart from these trading operations, the Union’s sole income came from the annual £10 subscription from all undergraduates. The University had paid for the building, out of Government grants, but they provided no other subventions.

All the facilities were very heavily used.  At a time when few University staff, let alone students, had private transport, the campus was fully populated all day, every day from the beginning of term to the end, and many staff households depended on the Union shop for their basic needs.  Every corner of the building was packed with people, and in early 1966 we even drew up ambitious plans to double our capacity by converting the Mississippi showboat into a catamaran.  

These considerations were almost enough to persuade the University to concede the principle of a fulltime student officer, able to devote time to the practical problems of running a growing business. But they continued to drag their feet.  As became apparent when I took over the negotiations, their final concern was essentially political.  Peaceable, moderate and mild-mannered Roy was the last in a line of Presidents whose political allegiance had earned the University the local sobriquet of “the Kremlin on the Hill”.  Supported by the Labour Club, Roy and his predecessors were regarded by some – by our born-again Vice-Chancellor Dr Harold McCarter Taylor, in particular – as an inherent threat to the Christian founding principles and values of the University: they had even attempted to install a slot machine for the sale of condoms in the Union building, and were therefore very much not to be trusted! My election provided the Senate with a glimmer of hope.  Once it had been established that I sported a wilting cord jacket rather than a donkey jacket, came from a respectable Anglican background, and occasionally wore a tie, a deal became possible.  

Accordingly, although I started the 1965-66 academic year as a fulltime student I soon lost that status.  By October the Senate had agreed that future Presidents could serve fulltime if they wished, and shortly thereafter the Vice-Chancellor and the Registrar confirmed that the facility would be extended to the incumbent.  There were two conditions.  First, that in order to remain a member of the academic community I must engage in some kind of academic study, which allowed me to add written Russian and a bit of Moral Philosophy to my quiver.  Second, that there would be no cost to the University.  This relied on my ability to persuade my local authority to support me for yet another year at university.  When I asked for my grant to be extended to a fifth year their initial reaction was stunned.  But in the end they did agree, and in November 1965 I abandoned my main studies and became a more-or-less fulltime officer of the Union.  

The Union undoubtedly gained from having a fulltime President.  But from a personal point of view there were downsides.  By devoting my presidential year fulltime to the Union I got out of step with my contemporaries.  Although I made many friends in the year group which I joined after my year in office I lost some of my links with my “own” year, and I always regretted it. Moreover, thanks to the prevailing all-or-nothing Finals system, I found myself in the summer of 1968 being examined on matters which I had last thought about seriously in the autumn of 1964.  

From an institutional point of view there was thought to be a danger, which seemed to have materialised in the election of my immediate successor John Harris, who had served in my year as a very efficient but buttoned-up Union Secretary: that the job of President would become a job for a bureaucrat.  Thankfully, that trend was not perpetuated: Malcolm Clarke (1967-68) was a party politician to his fingertips, and thereafter the three tendencies (politician, bureaucrat or merely eccentric) seem to have happily alternated.  Despite the undoubted benefit of having somebody in fulltime charge of the growing Union, a little something was maybe lost on the way.  I can’t help wondering whether the understandable recent trend towards postgraduate fulltime officers may have tended to distance the Union from its core electorate.  But, of course, we were still a small village then, and we did not face the same problems as does the substantial township into which Keele has subsequently grown. It was Athens no more! Bill Proctor President 1965-1966

The story continues...

I remember gnawing anxiety as the Vice-President post was one of three newly created posts and we did not know what was expected of us. I am pleased to say that I am still in touch with a fellow VP Jeff James and I am just preparing for a trip to Dubai to visit his daughter and grandchildren. Those SU days were among the happiest days of my life. I am not sure what benefit the student body enjoyed but I remember long meetings with the Registrar arguing for “Off Campus” living. Sue David (Herd) (1967)

My campaign manager for my presidential campaign (which I lost to Godfrey Smart) was Don Foster who is now Liberal Democrat Chief Whip in the House of Commons and about to retire as MP for Bath.  At the time I intended to become a Labour MP but as far as I know Don had no intention at the time of entering parliament, or even of becoming a politician.  But he did, and I did not.  I also remember that someone – Concourse  newspaper I think – described me as “too shrewd by half” which my late wife Nicky Pontin (who was Union Vice President or "Lady Vice" in 1964-65) occasionally used to remind me of when I was advancing some abstruse argument to convince her of something she didn’t want to be convinced of.  Mike Stanton Secretary 1967-1968

The 1969 election for members of Union Committee. There were, as usual, many more candidates than places and the electoral system was a vastly complex arrangement called Single Transferable Vote. It involved re-apportioning the votes of the lowest candidate in each round to the others on a proportional basis according to second preferences until the number of candidates left equalled the number of vacant places. I hope you are following this. It got even more complex when second preferences had been cast for a candidates who had already been eliminated, but I will spare you those details (largely because I have forgotten them). Or to put it more pithily: Election held in 1969 under impenetrable rules of STV – Secretarial Torment Voting system. Gerry Northam Secretary 1968-1969

SU Handbook 1969-1970 Having been elected as Secretary of the Students Union in 1969, I decided that I would try and get the University to agree to it being a ‘sabbatical’ post. It took a bit of persuasion - but the job did entail a fair amount of work, and sitting on University Committees etc. Of course the outcome was that I did an extra year at Keele and added a year to the already lengthy 4 year course (including the foundation year). Following this with a Master’s in Criminology and it seemed that I had not emerged into the real world for some considerable time. In those days Keele was much smaller and it seemed that when it came to elections Union politics were considerably less important than popularity, charm and charisma. The hustings were fun and our written statements also had to contain humour or nobody would read them. Fun days. Alec Spencer (1971) Secretary 1969-1970

The 1970s

Photo left: We are indebted to Alec Spencer (1971) who was Keele SU Secretary 1969-1970 for sending us this front cover of the SU Handbook of that year. Does this capture the Zeitgeist on the steps of Keele Hall? Note the bag - "Made in the People's Republic of China" - so unusual then, so very normal now! Pete Kirby (1971) took the photo and is on the right; the one with the bag is Alan (?) Warne (1974)

When I stood for election as a student rep in 1969 I used the slogan " moderation in all things " and got elected!Maybe this snippet will help today's Keele students. John Whittingham (1970)

Presidential Election 1972: I was the Union Secretary when the ballot box was stolen about an hour before close of polling.  I lived off campus, and had left the last shift to a couple of trusted helpers only for a knock at my flat door at gone midnight to summons me to hear the news.  Two (or possibly more) unidentified students had driven onto the Union Forecourt and two ran in, grabbed the box and drove away. A suspect car was eventually located, but given an alibi and the numbers of students who could hot wire cars, no culprit was ever nailed.  I forget now the circumstances under which the ballot box turned up, but the election had to be re-run.  The only pleasing feature of the incident was that there was, I think, a higher turn out the second time round. And... there was a candidate, surname Broom, one of whose slogans was Nude Broom Sleeps Clean. John Davnall Secretary 1971-1972

I seem to remember myself and Wilf Mound, my closest opponent, hovering around the count trying desperately to follow the STV voting system that we were applying back then. I'm not quite sure how I came out ahead but I've been a fan of STV ever since! Jim Moran President 1973-1974

My enduring memory was playing the long game - I decided I was going to run for President in September and used by job as Vice President to help. We had a coalition of socialists and communists - the broad left who dominated Keele and national politics at the time and I was a Liberal. My long term strategy - between September and the election (March?) was to ensure my name got known - since that time- 1977 - I have changed my name so my children didn't hate me - but back in 1977 Steve Shufflebotham appeared everywhere. The strategy worked but even I must have got fed up of the name as the Shuffle has long gone! Steve Botham President 1977-1978

I stood in two elections on what may be called a "Populist" ticket - i.e. politically unaligned, which was not de rigour in that period but I thought *** it. In 1976 I lost by a few votes after a recount to the Labour supported candidate – was there any argey bargey going on ? Well, who knows but I would be the last to accuse. There were some anxiety on the faces of the politicos I can assure you. In 1977 – I stood for the same position used my populist ticket again was successful by a significant amount – the Elizabethans called it "Court packing" I believe my court was the Athletic Union and various other populist groups. The election was between my two sets of finals exams which proved that if you have the will then there is a way, and it was not the reason why I only got a 2.2 however.  Andy Cassie VP 1977-1978

Manifesto 1979 Chris Parkins I campaigned for election as Social Secretary in 1979. Trying to get people interested and involved in SU elections was an uphill struggle; I’m sure things haven’t changed in that respect.  Technology has moved on, though... students had to show their ID card to vote, which was ‘marked’ by means of a soldering iron to melt the plastic to prevent multiple voting, although there were ways of getting around it for the truly committed multiple voters (or so I heard, I didn’t try it myself, obviously!) Every hall seemed to have their own ‘favoured’ candidate. Hawthorns residents were (as always) pretty ‘cliquey’ and the most likely to say they never went to the SU anyway, and also the most likely to say they were going to support ‘their’ candidate.  Many of them agreed to put me as their second choice, though, and in the end I won on the large number of ‘transfers’ - after which I became a lifelong supporter of the Single Transferable Vote system! I was taken aback by the attitude of some Lindsey students, who also had ‘their own’ candidate but were openly hostile to me.  I naively expected people to be at least vaguely interested and to read the flyers I put up, but they were instantly torn down and thrown away. A useful life lesson for me. Knocking on people’s doors was an interesting experience; as you’d expect, you get all sorts of reactions. I remember being surprised to find that people still listened to Radio 1, which was considered a bit of a housewife’s station at the time. Never felt so out of place as knocking on the door of a Barnes flat to find about 15 Muslim students inside having a prayer meeting... not something I was expecting. No mosque on campus in those days, of course.  I handed over a few flyers and moved on. I’m pleased to note that I delivered on most of my election promises (apart from the one about breaking even on more live gigs!) Chris Parkins VP 1979-1980

Right: Campaigning 1979 style - Chris Parkins' manifesto, page 1.

The 1980s

February 1981. Mark Thomas, Chair of the Film Society, was elected President by a huge margin. After a massive hoo-ha at Concourse, the March 1981 issue was left to Dave Lee to edit, with the assistance of fresher “yours truly” as political editor. I came up with the headline “Film Star Makes President” and was so thrilled to have a Concourse headline & headline piece under my belt in only my second term. Ronald Reagan had just taken office, of course, so the headline was both relevant and topical.
February 1983. Election for Union Secretary (I think). I was a member of election appeals committee. I had just come out of the health centre, still recovering from glandular fever. My diary records that I spent the whole day throwing up. Gennaro Castaldo, the incumbent Secretary and thus returning officer, came to my flat and begged me nevertheless to come to the appeals meeting. There had been shenanigans, by members of the election appeals committee itself, who were trying to nullify the election. Gennaro desperately wanted me to attend. I sat in that smoke-filled room for hours, desperately hoping I wouldn’t throw up and wondering whether I could make it to the loo in time if I did. My only very clear memory from the meeting is the magnificent Vincent Beasley, leaping to his feet, pointing at the main suspect and screaming “j’accuse”! The election (of Vivian Robinson, I think) was confirmed.
December 1983. I was now chair of election appeals committee. Vivian Robinson (Secretary/returning officer) and I were concerned that turnouts for elections had been low the previous year and wanted to generate some interest ahead of the election season. We wrote a spoof presidential election manifesto to leave up on the notice board over Christmas and for the first couple of weeks of Spring term. We invented Nigel Wisely, who promised the students absolutely everything – cheaper beer, cheaper gigs, easier courses, better services… The tag line was “when you come to vote this election season – VOTE WISELY”. Plenty of “the in people” enjoyed the idea and the sentiment. When it came to election time, though, a few students approached Vivian and asked why Nigel Wisely wasn’t on the list - his manifesto had impressed them far more than the listed candidates - they wanted to vote Wisely!
February 1984. Presidential election. Still keen to add some spice to the elections, I surreptitiously put my flatmate, Alan Gorman, down for the presidential election under his nickname, “The Great Yorkshire Pudding” (Alan was skinny and from Lancashire). My behaviour (forging a candidacy) was unbecoming for the chair of election appeals committee, I do now realise. Alan was really furious when he first found out about it – understandably so. I went out that evening wondering if I had gone too far and permanently messed up a good friendship. When I got back to the flat, Alan had gone to bed but had left a piece of paper (see attached scan) on the table. I laughed a lot – partly because it was very funny and partly the relief of learning that he had decided to go along with the wheeze. Mercifully, rather than Pudding, the delightful Kate Fricker won that election – she was excellent and working with her was such a pleasure.
May 1984. Education and Welfare election. I had campaigned hard to improve the lot of overseas students, who I felt were getting a raw deal. One pint-sized, teenaged Nigerian student, I think she was named Lara, was a very keen supporter. On election day, in the concourse, I saw her badgering some of her kinsmen to vote for me – virtually dragging them to the ballot box – those guys clearly didn’t really want to vote at all. “Don’t hound your friends”, I said to her, “they should only vote if they really want to.” “Nonsense, Ian,” she said, “a little bit of political thuggery never does any harm”. Ian Harris VP 1984-1985

I held a long-defunct and perfectly useless position known as ‘Communications Officer’ on the Student Union Committee 1984-85.What I learnt from getting involved in student politics is never to get involved in student politics. Alistair Dabbs VP 1984-1985

The long snowy walk to Thorns to canvass a largely indifferent opinion, the late great Anna Summerskill on roller skates canvassing on my behalf for a minor position on Union Committee in 1982 and getting into arguments with everyone (she was an SWP activist who regarded all non-believers as worthy of being screamed at for several hours) which resulted in me nearly being beaten by Abstentions (if there was only one candidate the Union would give students the choice of voting 'Abstention' - always a humbling experience if you should lose to something that doesn't actually exist), the hustings for the Union Presidential election in 1985 (when I lost to Tony Bell) at which I was asked what I would do about the quality of chips in the Union Snack Bar and what my position on Nicaragua was, and a year later in 1986 when I bagged the last Sabbatical Social Secretary's position promising in my manifesto to give a "Gothic flavour" to the entertainment schedule which strangely didn't cost me the election! Mark Ellicott VP 1982-1983, 1986-1987

The joys of the single transferable vote system; watching the piles of voting slips grow and then the shortest stack swept away as we looked on from a safe distance. As each person was lost in each round their papers would be cut away and in a corresponding motion they would themselves turn away... and head to the bar. David Macha Secretary 1986-1987

The 1990s

I enjoyed the under handed tactics by several factions. My emails asking for votes and rubbishing the opposition which were produced by a 'computer Science' undergraduate (nerd and/or boffin) with the ability to hack! Also, the use of 5 T-shirts with the letter Q embellished on them which were used for our five aside team! Suggestion these were unfair promotional gimmicks! I won the first time and then on the re-election, based on the hacking incident, won again! 'Keep your friends close and your enemies closer!' I have found treading carefully around Afghanistan trying to keep my arms and legs easier than pleasing the myriad of factions which populate the student populous. Gary Cue Treasurer 1994-1995

I certainly have lots of memories of elections, having served on Union Committee as both a sabbatical and non-sabbatical. My overwhelming memory though is of late night counts (and many recounts) in the ballroom with the returning officer trying to fathom the complexities of the singe transferable vote system. Karen Walsh VP 1997-1998

The most memorable things about the elections were:
1. Never knowing what would greet you when you went door to door canvasing, from indifference to genuine interest really quite exciting and annoying at the same time.
2. Surviving hustings, knowing at the end of it you stood a real chance.
3. One important lesson learnt is to put your all into it. You will probably only do this once so give it your best.
4. One other thing know the election regulations inside out and remember the importance of the voting system.
The other thing I got from were amusing stories....  At one of the doors I knocked on, a bloke answered the door now that would have been okay if he and his girlfriend hadn't been playing strip poker. Thankfully I didn't see too much. Another time, after a long cold and wet miserable day of canvasing without much to keep you going, I went into one of the Z Sheds and I was greeted with kindness and offered food to cheer me up. Pete Granby KPA Secretary 1997-1998

One thing I always remember is waiting for the results. I think I had about three re-counts, and the final result was released at around 5.30am along with a cheap bottle of plonk which in true student style was drank accordingly and followed by breakfast in the SU Canteen. Oh great days! Jagie Rai VP 1998-1999

The 2000s

My sabbatical year was one of the best of my life. There are so many highlights, not least winning the "dry cream cracker" eating contest at hustings! Best of luck to all the candidates Natalie Finch VP 2000-2001

I was VP (Finance & Services) in 2000-2001. My advice to any candidates is not to drink two double espressos at the start of the first morning of Election Day "for a boost". Austin Pickles VP 2000-2001

Student elections may seem like a glorified popularity contest, but your 'policies' are still what sway most people. Meet as many people as you can - on nights out, door knocking, at events - and talk to them 1 on 1 as individuals. Not only will it help you get elected, but it makes it so much easier to do a good job once you are elected. And if you don't win, you'll have had an amazing experience. You'll get to discover all kinds of negative opinions of you held by people you have never met. One person told me that they wouldn't for me because I "was a drug dealer". The combination of my anti-drugs stance, inability to swallow aspirin and charity shop wardrobe failed to convince them otherwise. It’s weird suddenly becoming a public figure. You become much more interesting in bars and car parks, and complete strangers recognise you in the street in different cities over 10 years later. If you are thinking of standing, do. It probably means you are smarter and more popular than you thought. And if not, at least it looks good on the CV... apparently. It’s worth spending time on publicity. People won't vote for you if they can't remember what you look like. Obviously I could offer tons of advice about the SU position, but it’s probably best if I don't! Matthew Wade President 2000-2001

Election night was a very memorable occasion, however due to excessive alcohol and a monkey thong i prefer not to remember much of it!” Darren Bland President 2002-2003

My overwhelming memory of the elections apart from having to change clothes with a cheerleader on the actual night of the election, was the fact one of the key policies on my leaflet was that I would improve lightning on campus... obviously i meant lighting, but it was something a lot of people asked me about when knocking on doors! Hope all standing have as much fun running as I did, Richard Robbins VP 2003-2004

A good slogan is a great start, as everyone scored with Shipman! Don't let it become your life, remember to keep focus. Every door knocked on is another potential vote, or argument! Paul Shipman VP 2004-2005

To know that so many people entrusted their confidence in you really takes you back. If you could bottle the feeling of elation of winning on stage then it would be addictive stuff! I still have nightmares of canvassing in the cold, wet and snow! Still to this day, it one of my proudest achievements to have been elected and then re-elected as a Sabbatical Officer. Rich Hill VP 2008-2009, 2009-2010

The 2010s

I would sum my election campaign up as ..."Team Kari: Assemble!" I was lucky enough to win, but the main thing my election taught me was that, win or lose, I had the most wonderful, supportive and crazy friends in the world.  Kari Rittoo President 2010-2011

Note: Titles of elected and sabbatical officers have changed many times over the years - in some cases VP is used to indicate some elected posts, not "the President", for consistency... In 2016 the titles of President and Vice-President were retired and a flat structure of elected Officers was instigated.

Did you enjoy this? Why not read more stories from the Keele Oral History Project?